Snapshot Of The Litchfield Jazz Festival
It's a Saturday morning, and the air is still heavy, even after the torrential downpour over the Litchfield Hills last night. The ground is hot and steamy, not unlike the music here at the Litchfield Jazz Festival, August 2,3,and 4, 2002.
The setting is sparse, no hustling, bustling crowds as I walked around the Goshen Agricultural Fairgrounds, past the assorted food booths and craft displays until reaching the Main Tent amongst the Beef Barn and the Poultry pens. The Main Stage is nestled on a bed of soft, although slightly damp, wood chips under a billowing, white expanse. I think the jazz aficionados were just too hot and sticky to move. Instead, they strolled, like a slow, Jazz groove.
Kicking off the day's musical events at Noon was the sound of John Benitez and his quartet wafting over the humidity, beckoning you to come in from a strong, hot sun and sit in the shade under the tent. Benitez, along with Miguel Zenon on alto sax and Luis Perdomo on piano, did a nice mix of wistful ballads and hot Latin beats.
Next on stage, The Bill Charlap Trio appeared, starting off with an old standard, a snappy Cole Porter tune called "All through the Night." As Mr. Charlap, whose style is a beautiful mix of Erroll Garner and George Shearing and the boys started to segue into the next number, they experienced some "operational" difficulties (something to do with the electrical system). Mr. Charlap decided at that moment to let the audience in on the situation. "We're just trying to blow our buzz up here," joked Charlap, a little embarrassed about the holdup. After a few minutes, the boys began to play an eloquent rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You," a dreamy, heady ballad featuring an emotional, effortless piano performance by Charlap and superb brush work by drummer Kenny Washington. It was like he was stirring a pot of "jass" stew. Along with his bassist, Peter Washington, the trio was rewarded with a couple of standing ovations. These guys pleasantly surprised me, because for their young ages, they play like they've been around for a long time.
Next up was Antoine Silverman - this gentleman gives a new twist to jazz violin. A featured tune was "How High The Moon," incorporating a ho-down, square dance bounce and smooth soaring jazz riffs. This band rocks!
In between the Main Stage acts, The Litchfield Jazz Festival Summer Music School students were offering their talents under the Gazebo Tent, among some great art from the area's artists, including Frank Federico, the official artist of the Litchfield Jazz Fest. He created the art that is proudly displayed on the T-shirts for sale as well as donned on many festival attendees. Crafts included hand-woven shawls, jewelry, handcrafted wooden pens, sun catchers, metal sculpture, pottery and silk scarves.
Besides the great music, one of the highlights I found in sampling the variety of tastings was the Caf' du Monde French Roast Coffee from Caf' Dechaine. You'd swear you were in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Being a coffee connoisseur, hot and humid as it was, I was very pleased with that large, steaming cup o' Joe. Also from the Caf' Dechaine were these delicious beignets - deep-fried French donuts that are more like little pillows and smothered in powdered sugar, enough to cause an asthma attack if you inhale while eating them. They were really good, though. Other delicacies included gourmet pizza, all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, Thai food, chicken, seafood, and of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
As the heat of the afternoon sauntered through the festival, the music became just as sultry. Mary Stallings, a woman with a voice like fine cognac and smooth, confident presence that reminds one of Sarah Vaughn and Ella, floated onto the stage and seemed to bring a cool breeze in with her. Stallings appeared with the Eric Reed Trio, comprised of Eric Reed on piano, Basenji Archer on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. This combo is hot! Reed's accompaniment was an exquisite compliment to Stallings easy, breezy mellow tones. Some of the tunes featured were Duke Ellington's "Love You Madly," "I Concentrate on You," "Cole Porter's You're Sensational," and "Sunday Kind of Love," a unique rendition to Reed and Stallings that's slightly gospel, sumptuously jazzy and has become their signature song, with Stallings taking you back to a small, smoky club as she sings like she's lived it. The band gave us two encores, met with two standing ovations, wrapping up the set with Stallings doing that "scat thang" on "Duke's Place." It was a great ending to the afternoon lineup.
The excitement started up again around 6:30, with Toots Thielemans and his special guest Kenny Werner on piano. The heat had finally settled down, but the crowd was on their feet.
The evening ended with a stellar performance by the Mingus Big Band. These musicians were, in a word, Awesome. 14 musicians on one stage, and expertly led by Charles Mingus' widow, Sue, just blew everybody away. This band keeps all the good things about Jazz alive and well.
For this Jazz Cat, today was an exhilarating experience, tucked away in the rolling hills of Litchfield in the beginning of August; a day full of cool jazz, food and art, in the heat of the day and night.